Saturday, June 19, 2010

Doctor Who in Denmark? David Tennant's Hamlet

When I was a graduate student, I always had far too much to do in the time, and with the energy, available to me. Yet, since I was a "re-constructed" graduate student (i.e., returned to graduate school after a gap of many years, and eager to put as much into, and to wring as much out of, the experience as humanly possible), I was constantly seeking ways not only to read what needed to be read for class, but also to reflect upon what I had read, so that I could learn from it. Toward the end of my coursework, I took a class on Shakespeare's history plays, which met (I believe) once a week, in the evening. (I think we covered a play a week.) Many of these plays I had never read before, nor seen performed, so I got into the habit of going to the library one afternoon each week to watch a video of the play assigned for the next class. Fortunately, the University of Dallas's library possessed the complete collection of the BBC's televised performances of all of Shakespeare's plays, so I was able to see well-staged performances with fine, professional actors, who spoke clearly enough for me to follow along in the printed text of the play; watching videos instead of live performances also allowed me to run the tape back to take a closer look at important scenes.

I mention this, first, because it is a useful practice that I can recommend -- it helps to connect the fine poetry of Shakespeare's language with the lively action of a performance and thus to cement the two permanently in the memory, in a way that just reading or just watching (or reading, then watching, or vice versa) does not. (But, of course, nothing can substitute for experiencing a live performance -- a good production can light up the play from within in a way that not even the best video-recorded performance can do.) The other reason I bring it up is that I recently decided to re-read Hamlet in light of Chapter 1 of The Wreck of Western Culture (previously mentioned), and thought it would be a good idea to watch a performance of it, preferably one I had not seen before.

David Tennant as Doctor Who
David Tennant as Doctor Who
(with Billie Piper as Rose Tyler)
Given the attention to the play's textual history that appears in the Oxford World's Classics edition I'm planning to read, I briefly considered watching the Kenneth Branagh version, which is "unabridged" (not sure if that means it follows the Second Quarto edition) and was critically well-received. But, to tell the truth, I was a bit put off by the fact that Branagh himself plays Hamlet (in bleached blond hair) and by the film's the extreme length. Happily, I had recently heard that David Tennant had recently done a televised production of Hamlet with the Patrick Stewart and the Royal Shakespeare Company, and I found that it was available for download via Graboid. I've long thought (well, at least since I got to knowTennant in the role of the good Doctor) that he is a very talented actor (by far, my favorite Doctor Who), so I was interested in seeing him in a dramatic role. Well, what can be more dramatic than Hamlet, Shakespeare's most famous tragedy?

Rather than write a review of the televised production, I'd like to discuss to what extent, and in what way, the performance enhanced my understanding or appreciation of the text. And, let's face it, Shakespeare's plays, perhaps more than those of any other playwright (in English, at any rate) constantly run the risk of being thought of simply as texts -- that is, literature -- rather than as performed entertainment. This is one of the reasons I always jump at the chance to see a (preferably live) performance, particularly if the play is one seldom performed. A couple of years ago, for instance, I saw my first performance of Shakespeare's Cymbeline in Chicago, and it completely changed my assessment of the play. It made me see humor and life where there had seemed to be only a kind of dull obscurity.

David Tennant as Hamlet
David Tennant as Hamlet
The text of the play as literature allows for minute attention to its language and structure, but, unlike other kinds of literary works, if a play is only read and not experienced, it remains almost a dead thing, waiting to be dissected by textual and other literary critics. A good performance not only brings the text to life, but illuminates it from within, as it were, giving color, character, and dimension where there had been before a kind of grey flatness. You might think that, conversely, a bad performance could suck the life out of the text, but I don't think that's true -- although a bad performance might make evident where the text needs a sensitive and intelligent interpretation in order to "work." (I'm convince that people who are put off of Shakespeare because he's "boring" and "hard to understand" have simply not yet seen a good performance.) Yet, a bad performance really cannot harm the text, try as it may -- I remember seeing a very bad production of Macbeth a couple of years ago and was very frustrated that the actors, director, and designers showed very little understanding of the play, resulting in a maladroit presentation that was, frankly, painful to sit through. Yet I did not blame Shakespeare for writing a turgid, nonsensical play! Rather, I mourned the opportunity that the theatrical company had wasted, to make this wonderfully tense and complex tragedy come to life.

The question then remains: did the David Tennant Hamlet nourish or frustrate my appreciation for the play? So far, I've only seen about the first half of the play (through the scene of the play-within-a-play, Act III, scene ii), and I will say that so far I really like Tennant's performance, transforming the dour, grief-stricken Hamlet of the first scene (in which Tennant will be virtually unrecognizable to Doctor Who fans) into an antic/manic figure more reminiscent of Tennant's Doctor Who character (although not annoyingly or excessively similar, however). Without a doubt, this is a wonderful performance and a very fine production. I'll say more about how it shapes my understanding of the play when I have time to go back and finish viewing it (it seems this may be as long as the Branagh film).

Laughs in the Catholic Blogosphere

Since this is a blog about things I'm reading, I guess it's okay from time to time to make reference to other blogs that I read occasionally. (I don't plan to make a habit of this, however.) One that I enjoy from time-to-time is Fr Dwight Longenecker's Standing on My Head blog, particularly when he is in satirical mode (which is much of the time). One of his recent entries that got me snorting was an announcement that he will henceforth be linking his blog to the website of his new parish, Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, SC, and including more parish-relevant posts. That much is just straight news, no funny business intended. However, to let his new parishioners get a taste of what they will have to put up with from their new pastor, he includes the following at the end of his discussion of his new parish:
... The parish has a building project, so the chance to build a new church is an exciting challenge.

I have already designed a very nice contemporary structure which is circular in form with the altar placed down among the people. The church is patterned after the native American teepee so that it reflects the 'Circle of Life'. Around the altar will be plenty of space to allow for liturgical dance and behind the altar will be the sacred drum space. I believe in proper inculturation and we will be encouraging the young people to play bongo drums of different sizes during Mass to encourage participation by all the people of God.

Already some nuns from New Mexico have expressed interest in coming to take over the parish school in order to transform it into a place of genuine earth healing and reconciliation with the maternal powers which are being raped by the military industrial male chauvinist conspiracy. They are called Sisters of the St Hildegard of Bingen who was known to be a herbalist, healer, musician and mystic.

Episcopal Bishop Mary Cesspool has agreed to be our liturgical advisor and spiritual director.
Then he rather spoils the fun by adding a postscript to his new parishioners that the last few paragraphs are just satire. Well, you can hardly blame him -- in many parishes in the American South (still officially "mission country" because of the paucity of Catholics), such things are not necessarily the stuff of Pythonesque fantasy. In fact, one commenter ("Catholic Tide") notes:
Those last 3 paragraphs were brutal! With the exception of "Bishop Mary Cesspool" I think I have seen every single one of these atrocities at one parish or another over the years. Thank you for the satire... sometimes we need to laugh to keep from crying.
Not everyone appreciates satire, of course -- especially those whom it ridicules, at least if they lack a sense of humor and the healthy habit of being self-critical. One such reader (apparently an Episcopalian who resented his oblique reference to the local Episcopal she-bishop) reprimanded him for his "insulting" and "non-sensical" references, and received this reply from another reader, who apparently has a greater appreciation of the purpose and uses of satire:
Bad Jesus, who makes nasty insults, such as,"Ye serpents, ye generation of vipers, how can ye escape the damnation of hell?" I guess those forty days in the desert didn't do him any good.
The Gargoyle Code by Fr. Dwight Longenecker
Just for the record, Fr Longenecker is a Catholic priest of the Pastoral Provision (i.e., former Anglican/Episcopal priest) who started as  an Evangelical Christian (Mennonite, I think). He's a fairly prolific writer (not just a blogger), with a number of books in print, including a recent book that updates C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, called  The Gargoyle Code. I was surprised to learn that his writing career started with writing apologetics for This Rock magazine, a very fine magazine published by Catholic Answers and currently edited by a former classmate of mine from the University of Dallas, Cherie Peacock. This Rock is well worth subscribing to, as I have done when I had a job and an income (and will do again as soon as I am able); if you are cash-poor or just want to get a taste of the magazine, follow the link in the previous sentence and you can read online (or download) archived issues of This Rock (after following the link, click the This Rock pull-down menu and select the desired date of publication).

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Lectio Divina: The Ancient Christian Art of Spiritual Reading

Mortimer Adler, How to Read a Book
Often, when teaching college undergraduates, I have found that my students are hiding a guilty secret: they don't really know how to read. Now that doesn't mean that, if I were to give them a book or newspaper and asked them to read a particular sentence they would be stymied. No, they would be able to make out all the words, and even comprehend entire sentences or paragraphs, so they are not "illiterate" in the most basic sense. But many of them don't know how to make sense of what they read: to be able to discern the most important ideas in what they read, and see how the ideas fit together; to put these ideas into context with other assigned readings (to see connections or contradictions); to assess or apply the significance of what they have read, once they understand it; to judge the value of what they have read, taking into account its merits and deficits; and other tasks that allow them to get some value out of what they have read. Once I discovered how universal this "guilty secret" was, I worked out a 4-point reading method (distilled and adapted from Mortimer Adler's How to Read a Book) that I required them to apply to each assigned reading -- a method that students found very profitable, and easily adaptable to reading for other classes or purposes, as well.

I happen to know that many Christians (and perhaps Catholics in particular) have a similar "dirty secret," only this one has to do with reading the Bible: they know they should be reading the Bible, they want to, but they just don't know where to begin or how to go about it. Most feel that they should have some plan or program to follow, so they wait for a Bible study class to be announced in their parish, hoping that the right curriculum, the right teacher, the right set of videos will give them what they need, and in the meantime they just ... feel guilty. Now, I would never belittle the value of group study or a knowledgeable instructor, but it so happens that there is one quite excellent, very ancient and adaptable method of Bible reading that has been practiced profitably in the Church for millennia, which is both simple and profound, requiring no teacher, curriculum, or grand plan. Like the reading method I devised for my college students, this one has four steps, but unlike that method it requires no real intellectual effort; it is accessible to any Christian, requires very little practice to master, and can pay bountiful benefits. You don't need anyone or anything besides a Bible to use this method, either.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalene Reading
Rogier van der Weyden,
The Magdalene Reading
The ancient method to which I refer is called lectio divina, "divine reading." Most Catholics have heard of it, but may think of it as something for monks or saints, not ordinary believers. This is a mistake, for several reasons. First, it requires very little time carved out of an ordinary day to profit from this method, and uses only very short Bible passages for meditation, prayer, and contemplation. Second, the method requires only prayerful attention, not great erudition or sanctity. (If practiced regularly, however, it certainly can help the practitioner grow in holiness.) And then, this method does not require you to work your way through the whole Bible, or to read scholarly commentary or take copious notes. On the contrary, it concentrates on short passages and simply requires prayerful attention. Once one becomes familiar with the method, can become quite a natural way to respond to Scripture whenever you encounter it (in the liturgy or elsewhere). In other words, lectio divina is suitable for anyone and accessible to everyone.

I'm not the person to give detailed instruction in how to practice lectio divina -- this is done much better by others than I could do. For instance, here is a nice introduction to the method by a Benedictine monk, along with some discussion about how to adapt the practice to groups. An even simpler explanation recently was given by a Brazilian bishop who wanted to introduce lectio divina to the faithful of his diocese. I'll quote most of it here, since it's short. You can read the rest at Zenit.org. In square brackets, I put the traditional Latin term for each of the four steps.

[Lectio] First, one reads the passage. "In this first instance, one attempts to understand the text exactly as it appears, without pretending to extract from it immediately messages and conclusions," he said.

[Meditatio] Meditation on the text comes next, in response to the question "What is God saying to me, or to us, through this text? Now we really do try to listen to God who is speaking to us and we receive his voice."

[Oratio] Then comes "prayer. In this third step, we respond to the question: What does this text bring me to say to God?"

"Let us always remember that a good biblical reading is always done only in the dialogue of faith: God speaks, we listen and accept, and respond to God and speak to him," the cardinal explained. The text "might inspire several types of prayer: praise, profession of faith, thanksgiving, adoration, petition for forgiveness and help."

[Contemplatio] The fourth and final step of lectio divina is contemplation. In this step "we dwell on the Word and further our understanding of the mystery of God and his plan of love and salvation; at the same time, we dispose ourselves to accept in our concrete lives what the Word teaches us, renewing our good intentions and obedience of the faith."
By the way, Pope Benedict very frequently recommends this method to all and sundry, and frequently uses it as the basis of many of his weekly public addresses.

If anyone should still hesitate, asking, "Where do I begin?" I would like to suggest that he begin with one of the Scripture passages from the lectionary for the daily Mass, or from the propers of the Liturgy of the Hours (a.k.a. the breviary or the Daily Office). Here is the daily Mass lectionary, on the website of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. This link will take you to Universalis.com, a very nice website that provides the daily propers for each of the daily offices. Many non-Catholics have the mistaken notion that the Catholic Church does not place much emphasis on the authority of the Bible or promote Scripture reading, but Catholics should know that is just not true: not only is the Catholic liturgy is a densely-woven tissue of Scripture references, but each day the lectionary for the Mass presents three (and on Sundays four) substantial passages from the Bible for the faithful to meditate on. Lectio divina provides a way to use the daily liturgical readings for personal devotional meditation.

Carmelite monk reading
Carmelite monk reading
Having said all this, since this is a blog about reading (not about why you should read), I will leave it to my reader to decide whether or not to try this method of spiritual reading. I will suggest, however, that since lectio divina is a practice that turns reading into prayer, then to ask the question, "Why should I practice lectio divina?" is pretty much the same as asking, "Why should I pray?" I hope you already have a good answer to that! If praying is something you already do, and would like to do better, you should try lectio divina.

Now, off you go! Happy reading (& meditating,  praying, and contemplating)!